Mark Milke: The failure to make distinctions is harming us all.
To say that 2020 has been a year of turmoil and played havoc with your life is to understate reality by a factor of ten.
Depending on where you live, in 2020, you have experienced a hit to your home’s value due to plunging crude oil prices (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland & Labrador).
Or you saw home prices rise just as you tried to buy (British Columbia and Ontario).
Or you were/are negatively affected in lifestyle, career, finances, or health by COVID-19 (almost everyone with at least one of those four in play).
To add to those issues, if you live in Europe or North America, the rise in Covid cases has the potential to again upset whatever normality you thought had returned.
And then there is a presidential election still contested by the outgoing president, Donald Trump. That added its own unpredictability to 2020 as we approach year-end.
The list of topsy-turvy events in 2020 (with five weeks to go) should have citizens of any province or country asking how to think about and react to such life-altering, society-altering and nation-altering upheavals.
Tribal reaction or useful distinctions?
The short answer: By making useful distinctions instead of engaging in knee-jerk, tribal behaviour.
For instance, I regularly travel to British Columbia from Calgary. And over the past nine months, here’s what’s obvious: Half the people in grocery stores I’ve visited don’t wear masks.
The explanation may be partly that Calgary and Edmonton and other Alberta cities require mask-wearing in most public places, unlike most BC cities.
But mention online or in-person that mask-wearing is a useful, empirically-derived way of preventing infections (–it’s why medical staff in surgeries have always worn masks!) and you’ll quickly find out that a chunk of the population views mask-wearing as a freedom issue.
Those who do so fail to make a basic distinction between a temporary, public health measure (voluntary or not, depending on locale) that requires minimal effort to suppress COVID-19, and actual threats to freedom that have short- and long-term consequences.
Actual threats to actual freedoms
When over four decades ago, in 1977, Quebec banned the use of English in schools for those not already Anglophone and required French only in the workplace, it was an injury to a core freedom—to talk, write, communicate and educate children in whatever language one chooses.
That ban (in various iterations) has been around ever since due to the Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause to lock down that illiberal measure. That was a short-term and long-term threat to a basic freedom—expression in one’s own language—and entirely unnecessary if one cares about an open, free society and core freedoms.
Or consider an actual threat to freedom of expression these days, the stultifying “Woke” movement in universities, media, and corporations where disagreements and debate are seen as threats to be quashed. Instead, strong views and expressions of the same should be seen as an exhilarating possibility for a clash of strong views and a thrilling ride into intellectual ferment. (The anti-free speech movement is another example of another failure to make a distinction.)
Or ponder those in Hong Kong fighting actual injuries to their freedom of expression and association.
Want a freedom issue? Those are three actual ones to care about. In contrast, making masks a freedom issue fails to make a basic distinction between a temporary public health measure no one in their right mind will retain after the pandemic and multiple other issues citizens should worry about.
An important distinction: Hundreds of votes vs tens of hundreds of thousands
Let’s tack now to another failure to make a distinction, the attempts down south to discredit the recent presidential election by throwing numerous accusations of voter fraud about as if hurling mud at the wall in the hopes something will stick. This has started at the top with President Donald Trump.
I’ve been part of a political campaign, so I understand the tribalism inherent in political parties and their followers. Also, the end of voting doesn’t mean one cannot appeal questionable practices, close counts, or go to court if one really has evidence of actual fraud.
But Joe Biden looks to have won 306 electoral college votes. Problem for the this-election-isn’t-over-yet crowd: Republican Karl Rove, who ran George W. Bush’s campaigns, points out that whatever minor irregularities occur—none of it will close the gap for the losing candidate in states where the Biden lead ranged between 12,614 votes (Arizona) to 146,123 (Michigan) with Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia within that range.
Add to that the fact that this one: Those most familiar with past, actual election fraud, or close vote counts who were on opposing sides in 2000 (Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies, both lawyers who fought it over Florida recounts 20 years ago in Bush vs. Gore), stand up to say “2020 is not like 2000.”
Right, so reasonable people should make the distinction between that year’s close contest and now—and move on.
Distinctions versus dumb advocacy
When those intent on turning a temporary public health measure into a freedom issue akin to the American Revolution, they fail to make proper distinctions and direct their energies to actual, useful ends.
When those intent at winning at any cost fail to make distinctions between their temporary, partisan hopes (some Democrats did this in 2000 and too many Republicans are doing it now), they fail to distinguish between their own temporary tribalism and their democratic system – which, warts aside, is not akin to a corrupt system in banana republic, no matter what the president alleges.
None of this means parties and peoples shouldn’t go to court to protect elections from actual corruption, cheating or sloppiness; they should. But that’s distinct from an approach that throws mud everywhere—i.e., files lawsuits everywhere—in the hope something, somewhere will stick.
None of this means citizens shouldn’t go to court to prevent abuses in pandemics. The inter-provincial restrictions on travel in Atlantic Canada are a good example of a vast overreach. But requirements to wear a mask so your grandmother (or my 90-year old mother) doesn’t contract Covid is not.
Distinctions matter. They should be made more often.
Mark Milke is a policy analyst and author of six books. His most recent is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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